Commemoration of Perpetua and Her Companions, Martyrs at Carthage, 202
Saints come in all kinds. Recognized saints, by churchly standards, are classified in several categories: Priest, soldier, apostle, archangel, doctor of the church, mystic, founder (especially of a religious order), virgin, confessor, and so on. One of the big categories of sainthood is that of martyr, one who dies for the faith in a less-than-peaceful way. Confessors are those who stand up for Jesus but who die quietly and naturally (or possibly by accident), but martyrs are done in by others in sometimes rather gruesome ways. Take St. Lawrence, for example. He was martyred by being roasted on a grill. Legend has it that his final words were, “Turn me over, this side’s done.”
Perpetua was a catechumen, one who had not yet been baptized. She was apparently a young widow with a small child still being nursed. Her family was wealthy but apparently not Christian. When she was due to have a hearing in court, her father visited her and tried to persuade her to have mercy on him by renouncing this Christianity and returning to the kind of daughter he had known and loved. Perpetua, having had a dream or vision of a golden ladder and a fair land beyond it where the shepherd welcomed her, knew that she would not get out of this alive and so told her father that whatever happened would be God’s will. He left dejected, probably to never see her again.
In another vision, Perpetua found herself struggling with a gladiator. She won the contest and understood this to mean that she would withstand the attacks of the devil and prevail even though she would lose her life in the process.
Her day of trial came. She, another female prisoner named Felicitas, and three men, Revocatus, Saturus, and Secundus, were taken to the amphitheater. Things did not go precisely as they were planned. Perpetua was led out, a wild cow threw her to the ground and tore her tunic but failed to kill. Felicitas had been wounded as well and Perpetua helped her to regain her feet. Saturus was mortally wounded by a leopard but the other animals, a bear who would not leave his cage and a wild boar who gored his keeper, did not attack the men.
After a short rest, all remaining prisoners were lined up to be executed by human executioners, much as the pictures of ISIS executioners with their prisoners in front of them. When Perpetua’s turn came, the young executioner’s blow only wounded her. Reaching up, she took the blade in her hand and guided it to her neck. Presumably, the executioner then completed his task. I wonder — did Perpetua’s courage make any impact on the young man who took her life? Did it make a difference at all?
Today we have so many news stories and articles about martyrs in various parts of the world. Over the past months we have become increasingly familiar with martyrdom on almost a daily basis. The recent beheading of 21 Christians, mostly Coptics, was just the latest atrocity in a long string of beheadings, kidnappings, and tortures in different parts of the world. We are horrified, but don’t seem to be able to do anything to stop the carnage.
There are those, however, who consider themselves martyrs. No, not that they are being persecuted like the Romans did to Christians, Christians did to Muslims and Jews during the Crusades, or Muslims doing to Jews and Christians now. These are the ones who have staunch beliefs and believe everyone else should believe as they do. Because they frequently meet with disapproval or outright rejection of their beliefs, they consider that they are persecuted and are martyrs for their faith. Somehow I think Perpetua, Felicitas, Lawrence and all the others who endured excruciatingly painful deaths to earn the title “Martyr” would probably shake their heads in disbelief.
What would we do if we were placed in a position similar to Perpetua or her companions? It would probably seem so easy to just deny their beliefs and save their lives. What made their faith so strong and unshakeable? They knew the risks of even secretly practicing their beliefs, yet they continued. Why? What was so compelling about the message of Jesus that they would risk certain death if they were discovered?
Probably they would understand Luther’s statement of “Here I stand, I can do no other.” What they had to lose was their place in a kingdom where the slave and noble would be equal, there would be no pain, suffering, or death, and they would be comforted and loved by the man who had been himself a martyr to prove that God’s love was for all people and for all time. Their faith in that promise enabled them to stay strong and faithful, even in the arena where they faced certain death.
Even if martyrdom isn’t a possibility or probability in our current lives, can we be sure how firm our faith is? Would our faith stay strong in the midst of persecution or would it crumble like a dried leaf? Do we trust Jesus and his promises enough to stand on those promises, whatever comes? Are we as willing to build our faith as we are to tone up our bodies and strengthen our muscles? It all requires the same thing — practice and attention. We can look to Perpetua and the other martyrs like her for examples.
Image: By Anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons